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Dark Orbit

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Dark Orbit

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Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Tor, 2015
Series: Twenty Planets Universe

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
Galactic Empire
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Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she's been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest.

Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions.

Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.


Chapter One

In the course of Saraswati Callicot's vagabond career, she had been disassembled and brought back to life so many times, the idea of self-knowledge had become a bit of a joke. The question was, which self should she aspire to know? The one she had left behind on the planet of Andaman nine years (and one subjective second) ago? Or the ones whose molecules she had left elsewhere, strewn across the Twenty Planets in a zigzag as detoured as her life? Since she was now comprised of an entirely different set of atoms than she had been a breath ago, could she really claim to be the same person?

"Welcome to Capella Two," said the technician. It was her cue to clear out of the translation chamber so he could assemble another migrant waiting in the queue. Too weary to think of a cheeky retort, she slid off the metal slab where she had been reconstituted and followed a sign into a waiting room of truly stunning banality. A medtech gave her a drink that tasted vaguely of mango, to restore her fluid balance, then left her to wait until they could be certain she was not about to have some actionable medical complication. The upholstery on the chairs was worn and splitting, the tile floor was so scuffed it had lost any color, the shuffle of travelers in and out was constant.

Traveling by lightbeam was not hard; arriving was the problem. She still had to steel herself against that feeling of having dropped into a bewildering future, jerked out of the continuity of time, out of step with everyone else. Even with endless experience, she still felt like an anachronism until she accounted for the years everyone else had lived, and she had spent as a beam of clarified light.

It had been five years in her subjective time since she had left Capella Two. She struggled to calculate how many years in elapsed time. Twenty-three, she decided. Not a terribly long absence. But Capella Two was so addicted to change, so avid for every novelty and innovation, that twenty-three years here could be like a hundred on another planet. She supposed this was home, as much as any place was, since she was a graduate of UIC, and that would always give her an automatic entry card. But Capella did not arouse any patriotic loyalties or emotional attachments in her. Being Capellan was not so much an ethnicity as an attitude. You could carry it anywhere.

A technician who looked far too young to trust came by with a handheld monitor to measure Sara's heartbeat, brain function, and immune status, then gave her a vaccination update and waved her on. Down the hall she joined a line of new arrivals being processed through immigration. In line ahead of her, a teenage girl with skin dyed crimson and silver stared at her a few moments, then turned to whisper to her indigo companion. Sara recognized the evidence that she was a walking fashion antique. She would have to buy new clothes. Again.

When she reached the head of the line, the immigration agent gestured her to look in an eyepiece, where she was treated to a startling view of her own retina. "Magister Callicot?" the young agent said politely, studying the display on his terminal. Sara admitted it, though she never used the title. "UIC," he went on in a friendly tone. "Class of--Wow." His eyes widened at the date. He looked like he had barely been born when she had last left Capella Two.

"You'll need to pick up an identity chit at the security kiosk in the concourse," he told her.

"Identity chit?"

"Your security clearance," he explained. "It's got your arrest record, outstanding warrants, restraining orders, that sort of thing. Don't worry, all of yours are old as the hills."

She didn't know whether to feel reassured or insulted. After picking up her backpack, which had come through the low-resolution receiver, she stopped in a bathroom just to make sure that the lightbeam translator had put her back together right. She looked reassuringly similar to the old Saraswati--rangy, big-jointed body that had seen its share of misadventures; black hair in a braid down her back; long, lean face with deep parentheses on either side of her mouth and river deltas of wrinkles fanning out from her eyes. She had always considered her face a kind of practical joke on her. It was a reckless, generous, kind, unlucky face.

Sara had grown up in a Balavati family, which meant she had been taught to reject all articles of faith except disrespect for authority, the lodestone of her life. But it was hard to survive serial resurrection without entertaining thoughts of the perpetual cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. Nothing is constant but change, her Buddhist ancestors might have said. She understood it in her reduplicated bones.

The concourse was new--a bright mall bristling with surveillance cameras. The security kiosk was open but Sara ignored it on principle, since it seemed to represent authority. She stopped to withdraw some cash from an old account, but passed up the information vendors, relying on her old knowledge of how to get around Paratuic. As she neared the glass doors, the way was lined with protection franchises renting out weapons and electronic alarm devices, each claiming to answer calls faster and cheaper than the next booth.

Outside, the daylight had the familiar orange tone lent by the presence of the gas giant Gomb in the sky, but otherwise the landscape was strange. Sara stood staring at the distant gray mountains--the rim wall of an ancient crater, she realized. She was not in Paratuic.

"Looking for a security convoy?" a man in a uniform asked.

"What city is this?" Sara said.

The man's face took on that uniquely Capellan smile that meant I'll help you for a price. Nothing was free on Capella Two, least of all information. Sara paid the man, and he said, "You're in Onowac. They moved the waystation here twelve years ago. Been gone a while?"

"Yeah." With a sinking feeling, Sara realized she would have to buy some hotel information. "Listen, is there a Waster enclave nearby?"

The man looked silently helpful. More money changed hands. At least it was preferable to paying a corporation. "Sure. Join convoy three. They'll get you there safe."

At a price, no doubt. Sara waved away the offer to carry her backpack, and set out toward the convoy lines.

Convoy three turned out to be an overworked and sagging armored bus. The driver demanded Sara's identity chit, but was content with a few bills instead. Sara stared out the grimy window as the bus passed the razor-wire perimeter of the waystation into the city. The architecture of mercantilism had changed. Gone were the plate-glass windows showing off wares for sale, replaced by brick-faced stores with large-screen video displays to attract shoppers. As the bus waited at an intersection, Sara watched the larger-than-life image of a model undulate through a magically changing set of clothes and skin colors.

Sara got off the bus at an intersection where the driver claimed four hotels were located, though it took her several minutes to realize that their only street-level manifestations were registration machines behind sliding security doors. As she approached one of them, the slot on the wall lit up helpfully, INSERT IDENTITY CHIT. There seemed to be no way of speaking with a human being. It probably cost extra anyway.

The jostle of passersby had paused, leaving a conspicuous space around her. She looked up to see two alarmingly large men in nondescript business suits approaching her purposefully. She faced them, backpack to the wall. Their pockets had embroidered logos for WAC, one of the giant infocompanies.

"Saraswati Callicot?" the larger of the two said.

"Who wants to know?" Old Capellan habits came back fast.

"We're here to escort you to WAC headquarters," the man said.


"Delegate Gossup's orders."

Delegate Gossup. The title meant that Sara's old faculty advisor was on his way to becoming one of the most powerful men on Capella Two. "How did you know where to find me?" she asked.

The big man gave her a pitying look. "We work for WAC, ma'am."

That was the other side of an information economy: absolutely anything about you was for sale, at the right price.

The silent security man took her backpack, and the talkative one gave her a WAC logo badge with an embedded tracer chip. "Wear this. In case we get separated."

"What's all this security paranoia about?" Sara asked.

"Crime. Terrorism. They've been pretty bad."

"Have they thought about restricting weapons?" she asked mischievously. "It works on other planets."

The man didn't find it funny. "That would drive the security industry out of business," he said coldly. "Follow me."

Sara followed, dropping the WAC badge into an inside pocket. She was damned if she was going to walk around looking like a product.

They headed for the nearest public wayport. She had expected them to try to impress her by leading her in through the opulent WAC headquarters lobby, but what they did was even more impressive. While one security man stood by to discourage ordinary travelers from approaching, the other fitted a chip into the wayport controls, overriding its destination programming. There was a brief frisson of transubstantiation, and Sara stepped out into the private administration floor of WAC. It was a world of wood paneling and silence, all footsteps swallowed by the deep wine-colored carpet that seemed to silently reproach her Andaman mudboots. The security man led her down a discreet back hall to a door with inlaid malachite designs, and knocked. Then, without so much as a moment in a waiting room, Sara stepped in.

The office was restrained and elegant, decorated in geometric black and gray, with bonsai in recessed niches under grow-lights. One wall held the best window simulation Sara had ever seen, tuned to a picture of Capella Two itself, as if from high in a tower, looking out on a pinkish sunset cityscape. The man who rose from behind the black enamel desk matched the room: tall, impeccably cultured, serenely Vind. The carnelian caste-stone in his forehead was the only decoration he wore, if it was a decoration. His close-cropped hair had gone entirely silver, a sight that gave Sara a shock of surprise. He had always seemed immortal, unchanging, one of the few stable points in a flowing universe.

Banter--that was what she needed to counter the subtle intimidation of this setting. "Are you sure I should be here, Magister?" she said. "This place oozes oligarchy."

Delegate Gossup did not smile--that would have disturbed the surface of his calm detachment. But he said, "Sara, welcome. It is refreshing as always to see you. And your timing is impeccable."

"Well, I'm glad something's impeccable about me," she said. The room was trying its best to make her feel scruffy.

"You are genuine as always," Gossup said, searching her face with a gaze like deep, still water. "That is a rare commodity here. Rare and valuable."

"I ought to open a franchise," Sara said.

Gossup gestured her to a seat on the settee. "Can I offer you a drink?"

Knowing who was paying, Sara tried to think of the most rarefied luxury she could imagine. "Single-malt whiskey," she said. "Neat."

The Vind's eyebrow went up a millimeter, but he activated the terminal in the coffee table and placed the order. A glass instantly substantiated in a niche next to her. Sara sank into the cushion facing the window. She saw now that little silvery fish were swimming in among the buildings of the city, and a giant jellyfish was rising into the sky. It looked perfectly natural.

"So, you're on the Magisterium now?" she said, emboldened by the golden glowing liquid slipping down her throat.

"For the past fourteen years. I was recently elected to the steering committee." There was no joy in his voice. It was no wonder he looked tired and aged.

"But you're still working for WAC?"

"Not at the moment. Today, I am acting on behalf of a ... third party. WAC is providing some resources."

"And doing it very well," Sara said, stretching out her legs, savoring the comfort her well-used body felt. She had just noticed the almost subliminal sound effect of wind in pine needles. It made the room seem more spacious than it was. "Are you going to tell me who this mysterious third party is, or do you want me to guess?"

Gossup hesitated, caught off guard by such directness. In her place, another ethnic Vind would have probed subtly for half an hour, while he parried, without either of them coming to the point. "That depends," he said, "on whether you are going to accept the job I am going to offer you."

So that was what this was about. But the news only sharpened her curiosity: he could have offered her a job in a far less dramatic way.

With a show of weariness, she said, "What a trial to be so employable. I was actually hoping for some downtime."

"I take it you have not been in touch with the university yet."

There was something in his delicate manner that made her take notice. "No, why?"

"There was an unfortunate difficulty with the data you sent back from Andaman."

This time she did sit up. "What sort of difficulty?"

"Some of the ethnobotanical data you collected proved to have a high value for the pharmaceutical industry."

"No shit," she said, pleased. Visions of royalties danced in her head, perhaps lucrative ones.

"Unfortunately, there were certain interest groups on Andaman who claimed the information had been ... improperly appropriated. They brought a cultural patrimony suit in the Court of a Thousand Peoples."

"That's ridiculous!" Sara said, stung at this slur to her professionalism. "I followed every protocol."

"Unfortunately, the paperwork was ... not quite in order."

She had been meaning to take care of that as soon as she arrived home. It was not really out of order, just in a transitional state of creative chaos. But she had not expected the information to be truly valuable; that raised the bar on dotting i's and crossing t's. Sara downed the rest of her drink in a fiery gulp and set the glass down with deliberate care. "When does the case go to trial?"

"It was settled six years ago."

"Without my testimony?"

Gossup nodded. "It couldn't wait. WAC and the university lost a great deal of money. They had to return all the information you collected."

Five years of work, gone. Wasted. Even the time limit for appeals had expired. She wanted to protest, but knew it would be useless. It was the theme of her life: dreams snatched away just as they seemed attainable. She laid her head back against the cushiony leather and stared at the ceiling.

"Under the circumstances," Gossup said delicately, "WAC and the university are not eager to renew your contract."

"No, I guess not," Sara said dully.

"That is why I thought you might be receptive to another opportunity."

In fact, she could scarcely refuse, no matter how unsavory the job. She brought her gaze down from the ceiling to his face, and their eyes met for a long few seconds. Was he acting as her benefactor, or as an opportunist seizing advantage of the situation? She wanted to challenge him, to strike out at someone. But even so, she was the first to look away.

"Would you like another drink?" he asked politely.

"Yes," Sara said, against her better judgment. One always needed one's wits when dealing with Gossup, especially if negotiations were in order. But what the hell, she thought, I have nothing to negotiate with.

"Is it illegal, or just immoral?" she said.


"The job you want me to do." Why else would he turn to a down-at-luck Balavati?

"Neither," he said smoothly. "In fact, I believe you may find it stimulating."

Bending over the coffee table terminal, Gossup activated a security shield. The background sound suddenly cut off. Sara felt static electricity on her hands and neck, and a prickle of alertness inside, despite the whiskey.

The words he said next changed everything. "It is not widely known yet, but we have recently received a communication from one of the questships."

It was something that only happened once a generation, if that. Centuries ago, the ancestors of humankind had sent out a fleet of robot questships in search of habitable planets to receive the seeds of the human diaspora. The origins of the grand scheme had been lost in the demise of Capella One; no one knew how many ships there were, or where they had gone. They crossed the desert of space in mute hibernation, communicating only when they had found something. It had been over a hundred years since a questship had woken from its slumber and called home, and everyone had begun to accept that there were none left to hear from.

"A new planet?" Sara asked. "A habitable one?"

"Yes," Gossup said.

"Inhabited?" For that was the great mystery: often the planets the questships found already supported human communities. Somehow, a first diaspora had taken place in a time so remote as to be lost to knowledge.

"We are uncertain as yet," Gossup said. "If the planet is inhabited, then it is at such a primitive stage that evidence of it cannot be detected from orbit. But we are inclined to be skeptical."

After soaring, Sara's hopes sank back. To be a member of a First Contact team would have been the reward of a lifetime.

"But the planetary system has other attributes that make it extremely interesting. You may recall from your elementary physics that some ninety-six percent of the universe is comprised of something we cannot detect."

"Dark matter--or was it dark energy?"

"Both. We can only observe their effects on the four percent of the universe we can see, but we know virtually nothing of their nature. 'Dark matter' is a misnomer; it is probably not matter. It interacts with nothing we can see, except on the largest scale. You cannot shine any light on it, because it interacts with no form of energy we know. You cannot build a detector, because it does not collide with normal particles. It casts no shadow on our world. Gravity is the only reason we know it exists, for we can detect its cumulative warping effect on the shape of space. But that tells us nothing of its nature.

"It seems that this new planet is embedded in a region of space that contains an odd concentration of dark matter. We know this because the light from a distant galaxy is very slightly bent, or lensed, in passing through the space around this otherwise unremarkable star. And also because the questship seems to have encountered something on its approach--a gravitational anomaly which gave it a good deal of trouble. We are still analyzing the data to reconstruct the circumstances."

"But the ship is still functioning?"

"Oh yes. Its internal diagnostics indicate that it is quite intact. A lucky thing, because as you might expect, the physicists are very eager to get out there and begin their research."

Yes, Sara could imagine that. They would go, even though the lightbeam receiver on the ship was centuries old, the ship itself in questionable condition, the space around it full of anomalies. There would be no shortage of volunteers. It was the mysterious power of this driving will to know.

Knowledge is our wealth, our honor, our sacrament, Sara thought. It drives us to give up family, home, and place in time for its sake. Would we also sacrifice our lives, like ancient martyrs longing to see the face of God? Is knowledge that sacred to us?

"Would you go, if you had the chance?" Gossup asked, and then Sara knew the answer.

"Yes," she said.

"It is fifty-eight light-years away," he said.

Farther than any other discovered planet. A 116-year round trip to be deducted from her life. Exile--but exile on a new planet. "I'll still go," she said. "If you need an exoethnologist. But if there is no native population..."

There was a secretive look on his face, and she knew that was not what he wanted her for. "All right," she said, impatient with his Vind indirection, "what is it?"

"Epco won the contract and is assembling an expedition now--"

"Epco? You're recruiting for an Epco expedition? Is that the third party you're working for?" The rivalry between the two great infocompanies, WAC and Epco, was legendary, and Gossup had always been on the WAC side. Come to think of it, they were sitting in the heart of WAC headquarters now. No wonder he had activated the security screen.

"No," he said. "The third party is..." He paused, searching for the right words. "Myself. I have a personal favor to ask."

Being able to do a personal favor for a member of the Magisterium was not a bad position to be in, not bad at all. Sara waited, afraid to ruin it with an incautious word.

"I have a young relative who is to be on the expedition team. She has been through a bad time recently, and I would like someone to be there to look after her, and keep me informed as to her well-being. Her name is Thora Lassiter." He glanced at Sara to see if she had any reaction to the name, but it rang no bells.

"What did she do?" Sara said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, a Vind of the ruling caste--one of the Ral lineage, no less--being sent to the far edges of the universe ... I'd say you were trying to get rid of her."

For a moment he looked like he was going to deny it, but then thought better of it. "She was an emissary to Orem when she suffered a health crisis, a mental breakdown. The place where she was posted was too primitive to diagnose her correctly; when she heard voices, they imagined she was receiving revelations from a god. In such isolation, she came to believe it, too. There was a mystical sect that embraced her as a prophet, creating a religious revival and a volatile political situation. You can find out the details if you are curious. Suffice it to say, there was turmoil and backlash, and we had to evacuate her in such a way as to convince the Oreman faithful that she was dead. Since then, she has undergone reconstructive treatment and is quite cured. But now we are in negotiations with the new Oreman regime, and her story complicates the diplomacy considerably. Altogether, it is safer and simpler to have her out of the picture."

"Wow." When Vind elites got in trouble, they really got in trouble. Sara already liked this renegade. She wondered if the woman herself had had any choice in the way the situation had been handled. Probably not; Vinds of that status were created to serve. Still, why didn't they just ship her back to their home planet of Vindahar? Sending her fifty-eight years into the future seemed a rather permanent way to get rid of a temporary problem. Almost like a punishment. Or a cover-up.

Sara wanted to know more, but she was not going to learn more by asking. It was extraordinary that Gossup had told her this much, and was willing to put her in a position to learn the rest, as he must know she would try to do. Any glimpse into the closely guarded world of Vind power politics was too enticing for a Balavati to pass up. Not to mention that scandalous information about a powerful family could be sold for a lot of money. Enough to finance a retirement.

Sara looked at her patron's face, silhouetted against the rosy ersatz sky. Could she betray him? She had always considered herself cheerfully amoral, culturally relative to the bone. Conscience needed to adapt; morality was contextual. Yet she had never had a temptation that really mattered. She had never owned information that could transform her from a gypsy outsider into a player, a person who could reach the levers of true power.

"Do you trust me?" she asked.

He considered carefully before answering. "I trust you to act in the way I think you will."

"And what's that?"

"If I told you, it would affect the outcome."

He was deep water under a glassy surface: an intricate mind, complexities turned in upon themselves. Perhaps betrayal was already part of his plan.

"All right," she said. "So what's my cover story?"

It turned out that her contract would be with the Magisterium, though only she and the director of the expedition would know that. Her secret reports would be sent by instantaneous transmission directly to Gossup; but in the meantime there would actually be some useful work for her. "Epco wants an independent observer to assess the internal dynamics of the research team," Gossup told her.

Hugely amused, Sara said, "I get to study the interactions of a bunch of scientists locked up together on a questship?"

"I thought it might interest you."

It was a topic she had some experience with. Exoteric science was her specialty. She had studied all sorts of scientific traditions--all but her own. "It's as good as a pass into the locker room."

With a warning glance, Gossup said, "Epco needs useful managerial analysis."

"I'll bone up on some management theory," Sara promised, but her grin belied her show of sincerity.

They settled on a handsome price for Sara's services, and Gossup gave her the name of the Epco recruiter who would accept her application without question. From now on, she would appear to be an Epco employee.

When Sara rose to leave, Gossup asked, "Where are you staying?"

She remembered the world outside then. It was easy to forget in here, cradled by wealth. "I don't know," she said. "The hotels seem to be requiring résumés these days."

"My secretary will get you a room," Gossup said. "Just give him your identity chit." Sara shrugged quizzically and held up her hands. Gossup shook his head with professorial impatience. "Sara, you can't go around arbitrarily disobeying rules. Some of them are for your own good."

"I didn't realize the planet had adopted universal surveillance."

"It's the price we pay for a free society. Here, give me your thumbprint and I'll get you a chit."

Hopelessly caught, Sara pressed her thumb against the scanpad.

Before long the security man returned, carrying her new chit and her backpack--probably well searched by now, Sara thought. As she was about to step out the malachite door, a tug of reluctance made her pause and glance back, her hand on the ebony doorjamb. It was then that it struck her: the interview had been stage-managed with a feather touch to manipulate her. All her life, Sara's declared persona had been as an iconoclast, a disputatious romantic, a brave enemy of elitism. She had studied the exercise of power in order to expose its flaws and inner contradictions, those channels by which to subvert it. And yet, in the end, access to the inner sanctum appealed to her immensely. It wasn't just the power; she savored the aesthetics, the refinement, taste, and civility. She enjoyed being in this patrician world--not of it, mind, not taken in--but as participant observer. And Gossup had known she would jump to seize the slightest thread of access to it. Every detail of this interview said so.

Sellout, she thought to herself. But it was without youthful rancor. Her patron was watching. "What is it, Sara?" he asked.

"I was thinking that I dwell in moral ambiguity."

"A fairer house than prose," Gossup replied obscurely.

"Maybe for you it is."

"I have not asked you to do anything compromising."

"It's not what I'm doing," Sara said. "It's knowing why I'm doing it."

Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Ives Gilman


Dark Orbit - Carolyn Ives Gilman

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